I have been eagerly anticipating Janet Jackson's Rock Witchu tour for the last year-and-a-half for two reasons: Jackson's performance and, more importantly to me, Vince Foster's production design. As an R&B icon with over 20 years of success in the music industry, Jackson's first tour in seven years packs quite a punch. With a 37-song set list and a show that runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, audiences are in for a treat. Kicking off on September 10 in Vancouver, the Rock Witchu tour has been satisfying audiences with Gil Duldulao's intense choreography, Jackson's vocal and dance performances, and Foster's dazzling production design.
The tour was originally in the works for last year but was put on hold in order for Jackson to put out another album. In February 2008, the team started to move forward again on the design for the tour. Rock Witchu is directed by Jackson's longtime friend and choreographer Duldulao. Acting as lighting, set, and video designer, Foster worked with Jackson to achieve a visual concept for the show that also fit the tour's budget. Jackson had seen some of Foster's shows and liked his work. “Janet wanted something futuristic — retro futuristic, sort of Art Deco,” he says.
Foster is no stranger to major touring concerts, having previously worked with Kylie Minogue, Phil Collins, George Michael, and Duran Duran, to name a few. “She'd seen the shows that I'd done and liked the design of the set and lighting, and wanted to buy into that a little bit,” the designer says.
The Rock Witchu stage was custom built to Foster's specs by All Access, although part of the stage was preexisting, according to Erik Eastland, president of sales and design at All Access. “The actual rectangle is from her last tour, but we did some modifications and built all the thrust, FOH, and all the pieces that go on the stage.” Eastland notes that All Access also built many of the central set and staging elements that fly in and out at various parts of the show. “The bridge was one of the main elements that we did, and the big focus on that was having it be road-able and reasonable,” he says. “It's a pretty major span; we can only fly it on four points, and it has to cover a lot of weight. We used some of our roof technology and kept it really simple.”
The bridge runs from stage left to stage right and flies in and out for different sections of the show. Foster describes the bridge's design process, noting that Jackson initially wanted something that spanned 40', moved out over the audience, could turn 90°, and that she could walk out on. While this may have been possible, it was impractical, and instead, they came up with the bridge.
The tour set also features a runway thrust that goes around the front section of the arena. “This is something Janet wanted,” says Foster. “She's always very keen to get as close to the audience as possible. Originally, she wanted it to go all around the arena, but this was also impractical. You sort of get the hardcore fans in the middle, and it enables us to add another dimension to the show.” Eastland notes that the thrust is similar to one they fabricated for Rascal Flatts for Bruce Rodgers' design. “It's really neat — a big U that goes all around, with trap doors that reveal the dancers.”
Wraparound stairs are part of the existing rolling stage. All Access built two additional rolling stair units, referred to as “the cages,” one for each side of the stage. “The ones that roll have a main stair that goes up and then a platform that's 4' by 10' that comes to a point and curves in at one end,” says Eastland. On one side of the rolling stair unit is a vertical, cage-like structure. “The crew calls them ‘the boats,’ because that's what they look like from plan view.”
The show contains a few gags as well, including rotating mirrors and a bondage cage. Eastland explains that the former “is something that the choreographer asked for to accompany one of the dance numbers. It's made from six mirrors, 6' tall by 3' wide. They spin, and the dancers have to run through them.” The mirrors and other gags all needed to work around the main 15' by 8' service lift that's built into the stage.
“When we were asked if we could build a bondage cage, nobody wanted to answer that one,” Eastland says. “They wanted to keep things simple — de-engineer the stuff and dress it up, but not overdesign — and it worked out to be a really good move.” The bondage cage in question appears for “Discipline,” the title track of Jackson's latest album. For the song, the dancers pull a male audience member on stage and strap him to the cage. “They rig him up on this motor winch system,” Eastland further explains. “It's really supposed to [look like] the dancers are pulling the ropes, but it's a motor that one of the carpenters is running out back — my son, actually — so that's kind of a funny gag.”
As both set and lighting designer, Foster was able to work organically on the design, blending the two seamlessly. “I'm the one that I have to fight with over the set and lighting design, so it's all very integral,” he says. “We came up with the bridge and put PixelLines and Versa Tubes on the face of it.” Eight of the trusses are on a motion-control system that moves around and out of the way of the video screens. “Each pod is essentially 27 one-meter Element Labs Versa Tubes, six PixelLines, two Coemar Infinity Washes, a Martin MAC 700, and a couple of Atomic Strobes.” Upstaging, Inc. provides the lighting gear for the North American tour and built custom light shields for each of the trusses.
Coemar Infinity Wash XL and Martin MAC 700 fixtures make up the majority of Foster's rig, along with Zap Technologies BigLite fixtures and Lycian M2 Modular 2,500W followspots. Tour rehearsals were at the LA Forum, with 3½ weeks to program the show, more time than what he usually has to program. Foster explains that extra programming time is not necessarily a luxury. “You work with the time you have usually,” he says. “But what was originally the wow factor of the looks becomes standard when everyone sees it so many times, and then we start to change it. What a show of this caliber needs is an audience, and that is the drive of the show.” The audience surely drives the show, but Foster's lighting leads the performers and bumping-‘n’-grinding fans down an exhilarating path, with visual surprises around every corner. The show runs off of a High End Systems Road Hog Full Boar console, run by board operator Alex Reardon.
Pyrotek Special Effects also added an integration of effects. Designed by Pyrotek vice president of special effects Lorenzo Cornacchia, over 250 various effects, ranging from fireballs and gerb waterfalls to multicolored comets and cryogenic jet heads, accompany the show. The cues are allocated throughout four selected sections, including the opening. Touring pyrotechnic crew chief Robert Liscio and pyrotechnician Raymond Seymour integrate the pyrotechnic design into each show.
Foster also chose the video screens for the show. He explains that all the video is treated as one screen, but there are actually eight video columns, with a gap of around 6" to 7" between each. At times, the motion-controlled trusses go behind the screens, so Foster can light from behind. “We toyed with using [Barco] MiPix and other low-res products, but the resolution wasn't quite high enough,” he says. “We needed it to be slightly higher-res, because we were going to be putting faces on it.” The team decided on eight Sony JumboTron panels with a 12mm pixel pitch to give them the higher resolution.
Video content creation was split between Foster and onedotzero industries, the London-based production house. Foster stresses the importance of clicking with video content designers. “Having trawled around various LA-based companies and not really gelling with any of them, I decided to give my friends at onedotzero a ring, having worked with them on the George Michael tour,” he says. “I went to visit them about five weeks — believe me, this is not a long time — before we went into production rehearsals with a single piece of paper, which represented about 2½ hours of show and content.”
Sam Pattinson, onedotzero industries producer, describes the show's theme. “Janet and Gil worked up a dramatic theme for the show of a post-apocalyptic future world with her band of dancers cast as her tribe on a journey of discovery,” Pattinson says. “Janet also wanted a very dramatic storyline of a battle for the control of one tribe, a huge good-versus-evil character, with Janet playing both parts.”
Assistant producer Tom Lowndes adds that the producers had confidence in all the creative players to “begin commissioning specific sections out to various graphic artists.” Collaborators on the content include Luke Hall, Damian Hales, Mark Hough, Ariane Geil, Blinkin Lab, Chris Cousins, Alexander Rutherford, and We Are Transport (a Portland, OR-based graphics company that created the good/evil characters). “We take these [original graphics] as long uncompressed sequences in preparation for us to edit during the programming stage,” Lowndes says. Five weeks later, Lowndes, Halls, and Hales were onsite at the LA Forum with 12 days to program the show. “Janet, in particular, was really a joy to work with,” Lowndes continues. “She understood what we did and was enthusiastic about our response to her changes. As each section was updated, we simply gave Vince Foster a time-coded sequence on a drive, which he then programmed the Catalyst with, ready for the next rehearsal.”
Foster is effusive about the collaboration, as well. “These three guys pulled the rabbit out of the hat, continually tweaking and editing,” he says of the video content creators. “They even created totally new sequences of CGI on the fly, until three weeks later, when we had a fantastic looking show, one that I'm very proud of.”
78 Coemar Infinity Wash XL
40 Martin Professional Mac 700 Profile
8 Zap Technologies BigLite 4.5 Complete
250 Element Labs Versa Tube
90 PixelRange PixelLine 1044 Batten LED
8 Sony JumboTron LED Panels
28 Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobe
24 Mole 4-Light DWE, 1×4 Linear
7 Lycian M2 Modular 2500 Followspot
2 High End Systems Road Hog Full Boar
1 High End Systems Road Hog Playback Wing
5 SAMSC Design Catalyst 4 Pro System w/DVI in Rack
3 DMX Data Lynx
9 DMX Data Split
4 Reel EFX DF50 Hazer
6 F100 Fogger
1 Le Maitre G150 Fogger
2 Le Maitre Versa Fan
10 Tomcat 20.5"×20.5" 5' Silver
10 Tomcat 20.5"×20.5" 8' Silver
2 Tomcat 20.5"×20.5" 4' Black
7 Tomcat 20.5"×20.5" 10' Black
8 14"×24" HUD Truss 8' Black
4 Tomcat Swing Wing Truss 10' 6" Black
2 Tomcat Swing Wing Truss 8' Black
Additional Tomcat and Tyler Truss for Spot Seats